And in better news…
The last column of the year is usually reflective and this will be no exception, and it has its origins in a conversation with my editor at my new-ish employers, the National Courier. We were musing over the events of the last year and I said words to the effect that there are many good-news stories to be told about Pakistan and the lives of the people who live there but you rarely if ever see them. I went on to tick off several that I had personal experience of in the last year. So write about it he said.
My home village is typical of hundreds, perhaps thousands in south Punjab. Poor, dusty and depopulating fast as migration to the cities carves a swathe through rural populations. The small farms that had provided a meager living after Partition have been subdivided as the years and generations passed, and are no longer able to feed and clothe a family however small. No new houses have been built for many years. The church school is just about ticking over having come close to closure and the soil becomes more saline as time goes by, just like the other villages to the east of the watershed. Back in ’93 it was heaving with kids, the school was bursting at the seams and poor it was but there was an underlying bedrock of family strength.
It would be easy, looking at it today, to believe that terminal decline had set in but look closer and perhaps things are not as bleak as they seem.
Potable water has always been a problem for the village and for others around it. Quietly, and with little or no fanfare and miniscule media coverage the government – yes, the government – has done something about it. Two-hundred villages in south Punjab now sport small solar-powered water pumping stations, providing two steady jobs (one for a Muslim and one for a Christian in my village) and the effect has been immediate and dramatic.
My sister-in-law has been a lady health visitor almost as long as I have known her and she keeps a register of childbirths and infant deaths. She also records the cause of death, and having seen her records over the years I know that countless children have died because of infections directly linked to the water drawn from the communal tankie. And they have stopped dying. The change was obvious and remarkable. The clean water from the new pumps has not entirely stopped deaths of newborns and infants but there are far fewer. Any headlines? None that I have seen.
Now go north, to the far reaches of Pakistan to the remote villages up near the Wakhan corridor. And another water story – and health more generally. Visiting the area in May this year I saw some curious metal objects close to many households. Turns out they were pumps. There is no shortage of water in the area but it is mostly turbid glacial melt, thick with sediment that drove a problem of stones formation in those that drank it. So the government, yes that government again, had installed pumps atop bore holes. Fixed. It is going to take a longitudinal survey to prove it but my guess is that stones are not going to have disappeared but there are going to be fewer cases over time.
There was another surprise. Damn government again. This is an area where primary health centres are few and far between and what was there? A brand new one. With a sign up. And a doctor. Who was on duty and I spoke to him. I would have spoken to the community nurse, a local woman trained for the job but she was out visiting pregnant women. The centre was basically but sufficiently equipped. There are a couple of others said the doctor. Very popular. Salaries paid I enquired? Yup, said the doc who posed for a photo and I moved on.
A hunt, and I did search closely, for media reports of either of these life-changing developments drew a blank. In deepest rural south Punjab so often negatively portrayed as lacking in just about everything developmental there is a solar powered potable water scheme – that I now learn is being extended to ‘a tap in every house’ – and has turned a significant child health crisis on its head. In the mountain fastnesses the provincial government has gone a long way to discharging its duty of care to the neediest of populations. These are not myths or stories but verified by my Mk 1 Eyeball.
These good news stories make little media impact, pushed aside or ignored in the face of a daily deluge of bad news. So as we wave farewell to 2018 reflect on the fact that it is not all gloom and doom ladies and gentlemen and that governments, yes those governments that we all love to hate, are quietly making a difference. For the better. Happy New Year!